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Westchester Leads State in 2011 Rabies Incidents

MOUNT PLEASANT, N.Y. – After a July story by The Daily Mount Pleasant reported that Westchester County led the state in rabies incidents with 19 positive cases, we thought we'd check back now that it's year's end to see where the county stands. Westchester County continues to lead the state, but now there have been 60 animals confirmed rabid in Westchester in all of 2011, that's three times as many as any other county in the state.

“Westchester County is a perfect environment for rabies incidents,” said Robert Rudd, director of the New York State Department of Health Rabies Laboratory.  “There’s a high population density and there’s also a lot of wooded areas. It’s ideal.”

Rudd said that due to the landscape, high animal populations and high possibility of human interaction in the county, Westchester is annually a leader among rabies incidents in the state.

“In Westchester there are so many beautiful properties with big backyards with kids and pets running around and human interaction is one of the leading factors for the spread of the disease,” Rudd said. “With the amount of people that leave their garbage out for pickup it creates a banquet of sort that attracts these animals.”

In 2011, according to the state Department of Health, the 60 incidents in Westchester trumps Erie County with the second highest total of 19 incidents. This despite the fact that Erie received more possible rabies incidents, testing 799 animals compared to Westchester’s 584, the two highest totals in the state. The number of total incidents in Westchester is up from last year, where there were 39 animals that tested positive out of 531 tested, according to the Westchester County Department of Health.

Laurence Gil, park supervisor at the Rockefeller State Park Preserve, said there were two rabies incidents on the outskirts of the 3,500-acre park this year. Gil said in his 17 years at the park he only remembers one other rabies incident at the park. The park maintains a rule enforced by the park police to not feed any animals on the premises.

In his opinion, the variety of animals and vast land in Westchester could add to the high rabies incidents.

"Here at the park alone we have so many types of animals; we have raccoons , foxes, skunks , hawks," Gil said. "That combined with a lot of open land can create a circle of life that other areas which are more built up can't have."

Rudd said that the number of incidents of rabies will typically rise to an eventual spike before dropping again every five to seven years as the disease kills off a large chunk of the raccoon population, who are major contributors to the annual rates. According to Rudd, the breakdown of incidents by animals is the following: 22 raccoons, 22 skunks, seven bats, six domestic cats, two woodchucks and one fox.

Westchester’s 10 percent positive incident rate is normal according to Rudd and does not represent any sort of outbreak.

“If we were to have 584 possible incidents in say Putnam County, it would probably be the same amount of positive results,” Rudd said. “It’s generally between five and 10 percent positive incidents across the board.”

Rabies is mostly spread through bites from infected animals but can also be spread by scratches or contact with the infected animal's saliva. The Westchester County Department of Health urges all residents to not feed, handle or care for wild animals and to report any suspicious animals by calling 911 immediately.

"If they can avoid it, a person should never come in contact with a wild animal like that," said Caren Halbfinger, director of public health information and communication for the Westchester County Health Department, in a July interview. "Because if they do then they need to be treated immediately and with the shots and everything it can become pretty expensive for health departments."

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